25-Oct-2006 -- After the previous night's excitement, and the early morning capture of 18N 51E, I was hoping that this would be a quieter day. Alas, it was not to be.
Thamūd is the first town of any significant size that I'd encountered since leaving al-Ġayḍa, and the drive there was uneventful enough. However, my hopes of finding breakfast and fuel were dashed - Thamūd was basically 'shut'. The absence of diesel meant that I instantly had to cancel an attempt on 18N 50E, which is located 85 km north of Thamūd down Wādiy Qināb. This was extremely disappointing, but most definitely the correct decision. But I still had easily enough fuel to try 17N 50E, about 33 km SE of Thamūd and on the way to Wādiy Ḥaḍramawt, where I would stay the night and where petrol stations are plentiful.
After travelling down the Thamūd - Tarīm road and passing through a police checkpoint, I left the asphalt at about 24 km from the Confluence. The going was initially like that for 17N 52E, 18N 52E, and 18N 51E - gravel with sandy patches. However, a very well-pronounced track led off in roughly the right direction, and I decided to stick to it rather than pursue a more direct bearing. The track enters an attractive wādiy, before rising to enter some foothills. About half-way to the target, I passed a tiny village, to which I took care not to drive too close. Doing so in Yemen can lead to misunderstandings, and (in rare cases) the odd round being fired off in your direction. Driving at some distance away usually signals that you are not a threat, despite being in an unfamiliar vehicle.
The track got steeper and rougher after the village, and wound its way through dark hills before emerging onto a sand/gravel plateau on which it was easy to drive quickly. At about 300 m from the point, I left the track and drove up a hill directly to 17N 50E. Its location gave good views of the neighbouring hills, and (to the South) another small village can be seen. Not wanting to make a nuisance of myself, I took the pictures quickly and headed back. Two confluence points before breakfast - not bad!
Returning, I noticed a big 'Sphinx'-like rock formation, and shortly afterwards I realised that a large blue truck was driving behind me. I was fairly certain that it had been at the first village I passed. It wasn't clear if I was being followed or not, but I sped on to be sure and it soon fell behind. However, at just 3.5 km from the main road, a Land Cruiser rushed up beside me and flagged me down. Its occupants were three Bedu tribesmen, each armed with a Kalashnikov. My Defender wouldn't be able to outrun a Land Cruiser except on very poor surfaces, and I didn't want to risk trying - they looked like they meant business. I had no choice but to stop.
They approached my car, and the youngest of the three made sure I noticed that his gun was pointing in my direction. The two others were ranting in a mix of Bedu Arabic dialect (very difficult to understand, even for most Yemenis) and, possibly, Mahri (impossible for me to understand). But they said that they were unhappy about my driving around without a local guide, terrorising their womenfolk, and so on. I'd never considered myself to be a terroriser of womenfolk before, but this wasn't an especially good moment to contemplate such matters...
One of the men started to go through the things in my car. At first I thought he was looking for some sort of 'compensation' for entering their territory (which I would have given gladly), but it soon became apparent that he was checking to see whether or not I had a weapon with me. Many expats in Yemen do carry firearms in their vehicles, as they think having one makes them more secure. But this incident is a case in point as to why doing so is a very bad idea: it can inflame situations, and in the wilds of Yemen there is almost never the possibility to use a firearm effectively without bringing greater harm onto oneself.
Once they were satisfied that I was unarmed, they relaxed slightly and I could begin the appeasement process: soft voice, lots of eye contact, and lots of sincere apologising. I knew that it was most unlikely I'd be shot - Yemeni tribesmen normally consider killing an unarmed individual to be a great disgrace to their honour. But the possibility of being robbed or kidnapped remained. Fortunately, after they had let off some steam for about ten minutes, they accepted my apologies and explanations (none of which involved the DCP, it has to be said...) and agreed to allow me to carry on to the main road.
Slightly shaken - but like all good Brit Dips, not stirred - I rejoined the asphalt and continued along what has to be one of the most dramatic roads in Yemen, cutting through the spectacular desert and mountains of the Manāhīl on the way to Wādiy Ḥaḍramawt. I stayed near Say'ūn, resting in preparation for the final confluence visit of this trip: 16N 48E.
Notes: My experience whilst returning from this point shows the importance of recruiting local guides when going off the beaten track in Yemen. Had a local tribesman been in my vehicle, there would almost certainly have been no problem. Usually I do travel in this way, and I recommend future visitors to this or similar points in Yemen to do the same.